Letter from New York

by Sarah Graalman


If you look at the radar images, hurricanes look like tornadoes on growth hormones, making twisters back home resemble tight tantrum-throwing midget funnel cakes. Sandy turned 100 homes in Far Rockaway to ashy rubble. She snapped a crane in Manhattan, which hung there like a tired, defeated weed after being drenched by a murderous sprinkler. The subways and tunnels could have been the log ride at Disneyland. The facade of a Chelsea apartment building was stripped away, leaving all of us staring into the stacked structure as though we were peering into a doll’s house. Millions were left without electricity and water for days—and that’s just New York. It’s so bad in New Jersey that Sandy has turned Governor Chris Christie into a sympathetic character.

Every region owns its extreme weather system in its own way. If you’re from Oklahoma, a tornado siren means crack a beer and go to your porch. If you live in LA, you’re, like, totally bored by earthquakes. Up north, people jog during blizzards with smiley cheeks. Down in the coastal south, hurricane veterans ride storms out with boards stapled to their windows.

In New York, we don’t get much in the form of natural disasters. Instead, we get terrorism and heat-induced blackouts. We’re recently getting to know natural disasters in New York: a small tornado one month, then a few months later, an earthquake. When the tornado hit I didn’t flinch. I made jokes as my East Coast friends tittered about. When the earthquake rattled last summer, I blanked on proper earthquake protocol, running into my bathroom while looking for a mattress to drag on top of me.

Hurricane prep is not something I ever thought I’d face. Buy flashlights, tape Xs on your windows, to at least keep them from exploding. Fill your bathtubs with water. I thought, “Why not buy drinking water?” (It’s so you can flush your toilet if the water supply is cut off.) The concept of a hurricane hitting New York City sounds end-of-the-world like, as if Michael Bay was writing the news. Hurricane Irene last summer sounded so preposterous I paid scant attention, heading to a friend’s apartment where I spent 24 hours watching Dog the Bounty Hunter and over-excited weathermen while eating pizza. The city wasn’t shut down for more than a day.

Then Sandy came and did terrible things to people, buildings, infrastructure, invisibles. I was plumb shut down. Without a car, nearby family, or a job begging me to come in, there was literally nothing to do. In the glass-half-full perspective of big-city catastrophe, there’s a blessing bestowed upon New Yorkers when the city gets crippled. In New York during any disaster, neighborhoods become tiny towns where everyone comes together. Whenever anything bad happens anywhere, people say that. It’s said so much that it’s said too much. Is there any place where people would say, “We fell apart! North Dakotans suck!” “Minnesotans are so lazy! EVERY ONE OF US!”

I do love New York. I love everyone fast-sass-talking at each other, making sure people are doing OK, figuring out how to help, but never losing their edge. They got to the Armory and make turkey sandwiches for those homeless in Red Hook. They exchange commute horror stories and blast gypsy cabs for jacking up rates.

I had friends who walked four miles across bridges all last week to wait tables. People need to eat. People like to drink, and last week they drank more. Patrons in darkened restaurants were still bitching about their steak being over-cooked, and my friends still wanted to violently jab their customers in the eyes with a giant forks because who gives a shit about a steak being done when you’re eating in the dark? Half of New York has no electricity. Breezy Point has burned to the ground. Staten Island is a gargantuan mud patty. Yet, a fussy New Yorker will always want his steak bloody. My waiter friend Tom watched a 9-year-old-girl cry when he told her they were out of salmon. New York kids can be weird. I can’t sugarcoat that.

For many, the hurricane was a hiatus from real life made more dramatic by the stacked nature of this town. I spent two days with friends on higher ground, since my apartment sat half a block away from an evacuation zone. So I fled, avoiding possible disaster. We listened to classic rock, ate mac and cheese, and listened as the windows rattled and then groan loudly as the storm plowed through Brooklyn, sounding like the fake tornado-voice in Twister, as though this hurricane was a creature with a face and a booming larynx. We sat with our laptops open, commenting on friend’s news-feeds. My friend Franny, always a compassionate one, cried at every fateful news story, and they were many. Trees were uprooted with such force that the sidewalks rose up and cracked as if spawning monster aliens.

We waited. We listened to Stevie Wonder. I made kettle corn. I went home when I found out I had power.

In the remaining four days of city shutdown, I cooked my way through the aftermath as if my life depended on it, like some iron chef doing battle in The Hunger Games. My southern-ish sensibilities kicked in and I cooked and served Velveeta and Rotel. Comfort food is what I know. My grandmother used to serve me peanut butter ice cream and chocolate cake, and it always made everything better.

After digging in my heels for 11 plus years of random New York catastrophes (terrorism, blackouts, subway strikes) I have realized we all develop survival personas. Mine is a fat joyous lady-king who channels Paul Dean to sooth and protect her friends.

When my friend Russ was stuck without electricity in his Lower East Side digs the night of the storm, just two days before his 40th birthday, I did what any Paula Dean would do: I invited him over for lights and heat, and cooked him a birthday cake soaked in whiskey. We went on a three-day birthday-food bender, turning the cake into a pancake and deep-frying it in bacon fat the next day. I made apple crumble. Pasta. Chili. Bacon. I wrapped leftovers in bacon. We watched Taxi Driver  and killed zombies on my Xbox. I once didn’t understand why I have an Xbox. I realized last week—it’s for natural disasters. We bought cheap costumes at a dollar store for Halloween before a perfect dinner of fried chicken and mussels. We must have drunk all the whiskey still left in Brooklyn. We resurrected his birthday by embracing the unplanned ambiance of a once-in-a-lifetime storm.

We forgot what day of the week it was, waiting for the lights to go back on in the city so we could start worrying again about all of the adult things we were supposed to be doing. The jobs we should be on. The projects we were plotting. We all came here, to New York, to do something, so sometimes we never stop to listen to the nothing. I forgot how nice that quiet was. I forgot how perfect it can be, to fret only about the night’s dinner menu, what to do with the leftovers, and what stupid jokes to make. It oddly felt like normal life, which in retrospect seems like a selfish thing to relish in with so much chaos is going on around you so damned close. It’s usually a few days after a hit that the bruises start to show up.

The lights went back on, the subways lurched life, and we all began seeing the devastation, mere blocks away from our apartments, which Sandy miraculously left untouched, much like a tornado would back home. One house standing. The other, only a kitchen table left among the rubble.

Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 23. Dec. 1, 2012.